LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Just as people choose to forget that Elvis Presley was a bloated drug addict when he died, so Michael Jackson is now the subject of posthumous veneration that overlooks the dark side of his life.
Jackson’s career was all but comatose four years ago when he stood trial for child molestation in California. Despite lurid testimony from a 13-year-old boy who said that Jackson conducted sexual acts with him, a jury decided he was not guilty. But damage had been done.
“It was all over after the trial,” said veteran rock critic Dave Marsh, author of the 1985 book “Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream.” “For me, I think he was dead as a celebrity before he was dead as a person. It was pretty pathetic, the last few years. He managed to whittle himself down to size. It’s a shame, really.”
In the days following the self-proclaimed king of pop’s death on June 25 aged 50, reports of prescription-drug abuse have served as eerie reminders of the pharmaceutical cocktails that Presley was taking before he died in 1977.
As was also the case with Presley, Jackson’s sales suddenly spiked after his death. Manufacturing plants struggled to keep up with demand as fans around the world snapped up his albums. And as fans fondly favor the “young Elvis,” so they focus on “young Michael” before his face underwent startling changes.
Margo Jefferson, author of the 2006 book “On Michael Jackson,” hoped people could separate their feelings about Jackson the artist from their attitude toward Jackson the man.
“I think we can multi-task when it comes to our cultural icons,” said Jefferson. “We can live simultaneously with their enormous talent, be it a Michael Jackson, or a Marlon Brando or a Judy Garland or an Elvis. And we can live with the knowledge of the enormous damage that they did to themselves, that was done to them, and that they did to other people.”
British music biographer Barney Hoskyns glumly predicted Jackson would become “a kind of martyr to fame.”
“What staggers me is how myopic the most dedicated of his fans can be, the way they have been able to just deny to themselves the reality of Michael’s hypocrisy,” he said.
In 1993, Jackson paid a reported $23 million to make a first child molestation allegation go away. A decade later he defiantly told a TV interviewer there was nothing wrong with sleeping with young boys.
That same year, 2003, came a second round of accusations of sex with a minor and the criminal charge of molestation.
Biographer Christopher Andersen’s 1994 book “Michael Jackson Unauthorized” claimed the singer spent nearly every night over a three-year period through 1987 with young boys between the ages of nine and 14.
When Stephen Davis, ghostwriter of Jackson memoir “Moon Walk,” was at Jackson’s Encino, Calif. home in 1987 conducting interviews, a succession of preteen boys visited constantly.
“I never saw them in bed together, but it makes perfect sense to me that it was like camping out,” he said. “Camping out with Uncle Mike. But I don’t believe he ever laid a finger on them.”
While the sexual allegations may tarnish his reputation, and speculation about drug use and cosmetic surgery will likely be talked about for years, Jackson’s musical legacy is on safer ground -- even if his best days were well behind him by the time he died.
His 1982 disc “Thriller” remains the biggest-selling album of all time thanks to such video-fueled hits as “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” But “Bad,” (1987) “Dangerous” (1991) and “Invincible” (2001) successively cost more and sold less.
“Everything on ‘Bad’ sounded like it had been written by a committee or a computer,” said Hoskyns. “The subsequent albums were horrible too ... He had become so fake that he didn’t even know what was real about himself anymore.”
What’s more, innovators like Prince -- with his 1987 album “Sign o’ the Times” -- were making music that was “ten times more radical than anything Michael could do,” said Hoskyns
Childhood hits such as “ABC” and “I’ll Be There” with his older brothers in the Jackson 5 remain rare examples of enduring teen pop. Jackson had the foresight to break out on his own, and in 1979 released what many people consider to be his masterpiece: “Off The Wall.”
“It really did invent the sound of black popular music in the ‘80s, and everything starts with (chart-topping first single) ‘Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough,'” said Hoskyns.
To that end, his musical legacy is largely secure, and it raises the big issue of what else he could have achieved had his life not been such a mess.
“He should have just been making music,” said Rolling Stone writer Neil Strauss. “No one doubts when they see him that this guy just has it flowing through him. When he comes to dance and music, he embodies it. That’s who he is.”
(Editing by Alan Elsner and Bob Tourtellotte)
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